The transition to a peaceful, democratic South Africa
Gun Free SA traces its roots back to the months before SA’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994. Guns had proliferated in the hands of different political factions and groups claiming they were needed for ‘self-defence’. The unarmed majority lived in fear on trains and taxis, in the streets and in their homes. There was real concern that there might be a military coup and many feared civil war. It was in this charged environment that the seed for Gun Free SA was planted; with a campaign for civilians to hand in their guns for destruction. The campaign movers were members of the religious sub-committee involved in the National Peace Accord that played a significant role in the birth of democracy in South Africa. Prominent individuals like President Nelson Mandela and Bishop Peter Storey – one of the founders of Gun Free SA – saw the campaign as central to this process.
A day of amnesty was declared by the government on 16 December 1994, where no one would be prosecuted for handing in illegal firearms. Although the amnesty did not result in getting enough guns out of circulation, it succeeded in putting the issue of gun control on the agenda. It also led to the establishment of Gun Free SA in 1995. The first years were spent trying to understand the issues and establish links with other organisations. It was during this time that the true extent of gun violence in SA became apparent: South Africa had the death profile of a country at war with more people being shot and killed than died on the country’s roads. Yet legislation to control gun ownership, the Arms and Ammunition Act of 1969, was completely inadequate: There were no competency requirements or licence renewal systems, the age limit for gun ownership was 16 years and the limit on the number of guns an individual could own was twelve.
Raising the voice of the unarmed majority
Gun Free SA began building a broad-based civil society alliance to strengthen gun control. The Gun Control Alliance (GCA), launched in 1999, grew to represent over 450 organisations, institutions and individuals representing business, health, human rights, religious, women and youth organisations. The GCA had its origins in the Gun Control Charter, developed by GFSA as a tool to bridge the gap between policy makers and civil society. The Charter consisted of a list of minimum demands to be included in a new Firearms Control Act. When the public was invited to comment on the Firearms Control Bill, the GCA mobilised its members and networks to make written submissions and to encourage public debate on the issue. Two rounds of public hearings on the Firearms Control Bill were held in Cape Town – the first in June 2000 and the second in August of the same year.
MPs give Samuel Kobela from Mapela a standing ovation Samuel Kobela from Mapela – a poor rural community in Limpopo Province made an oral submission to Parliament on the Firearms Control Bill. He reflects on the experience below: “First, I would say, when I heard the news that I would be going to Cape Town to make an oral submission on the Firearms Control Bill, I got excited, nervous and proud. I got excited in the sense that it would be my first time to fly and also my first visit to Cape Town and to Parliament as well as to the sea. I got nervous when I thought of presenting before the MPs, and I felt proud at being invited by the Safety and Security Portfolio Committee. Adèle [Gun Free SA’s Director] and myself left at 16h15 to Joburg International Airport. On board the flight I was relaxed because I was sitting next to Adèle. We arrived in Cape Town at 20h00. We drove to Sea Point where we spent the night. Sea Point is next to the sea and really I had a clear view of the sea. In the evening, Adèle acted as the Portfolio Committee Chairperson and asked me to present. After my presentation, she asked me questions. She encouraged me – and this kind of practice really helped me. I went to bed at 23h00 and woke up at 5am. Before we drove to Parliament Claire (a Gun Free SA staff member) and myself walked on foot to the sea where she took pictures of me. We arrived at Parliament at 8h30. During the Public Hearings I listened carefully to presenters. Some of the presenters were furious, criticising the Bill as a whole. Nevertheless I realised how friendly the MPs were. When the Chairperson called my name, I felt nervous, but when I started talking I regained confidence. My presentation focussed on two issues: Gun Free Zones (GFZs) and the Age Limit. I supported chapter 20 (of the Bill) on GFZs. GFZs are about community safety and the initiative has been going on for three years in Mapela and is getting support from more residents. I also objected to the age limit of 18 (in the Bill) and proposed the age should go to 25. This will exclude school going kids and will also make the implementation of GFZs in schools easier. After my presentation, the MPs applauded me for the work I’ve been doing.”
Gun Free SA’s work during this period is regarded as an example of effective public policy advocacy as was confirmed in an independent evaluation by a funder: According to stakeholders, including alliance members, state department officials and MPs, the GCA significantly contributed to the campaign for stricter gun control.
Saving thousands of lives
In 2000, despite vocal opposition from South Africa’s gun lobby, the Firearms Control Act was passed and promulgated in 2004.
Published research attributes the steady decline in violence in SA between 2000 and 2010 to a decline in gun violence resulting from stricter gun controls associated with the Firearms Control Act (2000) • The “strength, timing, and consistency of the decline in (the number of people shot and killed in five South African cities between 2001 and 2005) suggest that stricter gun control through the FCA accounted for a significant decrease in homicide overall, and firearm homicide in particular” (Matzopoulos, R. et al. 2014. Firearm and Nonfirearm Homicide in 5 South African Cities: A Retrospective Population-Based study. American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 455-460, p. 459). • “There was a very substantial difference in the rate of (women that were shot and killed between 1999 and 2009). The decrease is most likely explained by gun control legislation (Firearms Control Act) …with provisions for safer firearm use and ownership amongst its key features” (Abrahams, N. et al. 2013. Intimate Partner Femicide in South Africa in 1999 and 2009. PLOS Medicine, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 1-8, p. 3). • “Our study shows a decline in total firearm injuries in children from 2001 (to 2010 in the Western Cape) …demonstrating that strengthening firearm legislation can reduce firearm-related injury” (Campbell, N. et al. 2013. Firearm injuries to children in Cape Town, South Africa: Impact of the 2004 Firearms Control Act. South African Journal of Surgery, Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 92-96, p. 95).
Establishing islands of safety
The Gun Free Zone project (GFZ) project is an important tool used by Gun Free SA to create safe spaces and encourage debate about individual and community safety. As a result of our work with communities, the Firearms Control Act (2000) makes provision for the establishment of Firearm Free Zones (FFZs). Click here for more information on how to leave your fear at the door and make your space a GFZ. Click here for more information on the differences between GFZs and FFZs. Much of Gun Free SA’s GFZ work has been included in a United Nations guideline document. Click here to download the Office of Disarmament Affairs Guidelines on how to establish and maintain gun-free zones.
South African Police Services Tender
Recognising that violence at schools is a major problem, the South African Police Service (SAPS) put out a tender in February 2000 for a pilot project to develop, implement and maintain schools as FFZs under Section 140 of the Firearms Control Act. Gun Free SA applied for and was awarded the SAPS tender because of our experience in developing tools and materials in helping communities and organisations create safer communities. In total 27 schools across SA participated in the FFZ pilot project, which was called iguniflop. An independent evaluation of the pilot found that participants overwhelmingly (70%) believed that they were safer after their school became a gun free zone. While all 27 schools in the pilot adopted GFZ policies and applied to the Minister of Police to be declared as Firearm Free Zones under Section 140 of the Firearms Control Act, to date the Minister has yet to declare any space a Firearm Free Zone.
Further, in both rural and urban areas where crime and gangsterism prevail, youth strongly supported their school becoming gun free; the process itself created the space to engage youth around the issue of guns and gun violence, giving them the opportunity and power to directly influence their immediate environment and develop alternative responses to violence.
While all 27 schools in the pilot adopted GFZ policies and applied to the Minister of Police to be declared as Firearm Free Zones under Section 140 of the Firearms Control Act, to date the Minister has yet to declare any space a Firearm Free Zone.
Supporting the 2010 National Firearms Amnesty
As South Africa geared itself to host the FIFA World Cup, Gun Free SA kicked off 2010 by partnering with the Secretariat for Police on the 2010 national firearms amnesty. During the amnesty, held from 11 January to 11 April 2010, the public was given immunity from prosecution for being in illegal possession of firearms or ammunition. Gun Free SA played a leading role in the amnesty; monitoring the process, thereby ensuring civil society oversight and transparency and assisting the police with communicating the amnesty message.
At the close of the 2010 firearms amnesty a total of 42,329 firearms and 450,389 rounds of ammunition had been handed in.
Risks of guns
Gun Free SA has helped raise awareness of the risks of guns and how the Firearms Control Act can be used to save a life.
One of our most powerful advertising campaigns entitled ‘if your stolen gun was there, so were you’ highlights that one of the risks of having a gun is the risk for loss and theft, thereby inadvertently arming criminals.
Following a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority and a lengthy hearings process, the ASA ruled in favour of Gun Free SA, and other NGOs, deeming the advert to be non-commercial advertising constituting an expression of opinion.
Constitutional Court ruling: Gun ownership is a privilege, not a right
GFSA acted as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in a 2018 case in which the Minister of Police appealed a High Court judgment which challenged the constitutionality of regular gun licence renewals.
Using evidence provided by GFSA, the ConCourt unanimously ruled that gun ownership is not a fundamental right under our Bill of Rights, rather it is a privilege regulated by the Firearms Control Act. Under the Act: • No person may possess a gun without a valid licence; • A firearm licence is valid for a limited period of time; and • Unless a gun owner has renewed his gun licence before expiry, he has committed a criminal offence and is subject to penalties, including a fine or imprisonment.
Founding member of global gun control network
In May 1999 a broad-based international civil society network, the International Action Network on Small Arms, was launched. Gun Free SA was a founding member of IANSA and remains an active member. Being part of IANSA provides us with the opportunity to highlight successes and impact and learn from other countries and actions around the world aimed at reducing gun violence. The IANSA secretariat plays an important role in keeping members informed about latest developments on small arms control matters at the UN. In addition, IANSA coordinates action on global campaigns such as the Wear Orange campaign to honour those who have lost their lives to gun violence and the annual Global Week of Action Against Gun Violence.
A nation without guns? The story of Gun Free South Africa
Adèle Kirsten, Gun Free SA’s Director, tells the remarkable story of how Gun Free South Africa, a small NGO with few resources, mobilized to reduce the number of guns in circulation. Through innovative campaigning and media strategies, the book highlights the value of involving ordinary people in a process that resulted not only in a new law, but deeply influenced the thinking of many of those in search of genuine solutions to a post-conflict society.
Title: A Nation Without Guns? The Story of Gun Free South Africa Author: Adèle Kirsten Publisher: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press (2008) ISBN-13: 9781869141356 Pages: 244
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